Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Economic Benefit and Worth

Last week I was watching a news program on our local public broadcasting station. They featured an article on a gathering of bird-watchers that was taking place in our city. The section focused particularly on the economic benefit that bird-watching brings to our region. This caught my attention because it represents to me a disturbing trend I see in society and in the church: the tendency to evaluate everything in terms of the economic cost and benefit.

I do not think it inherently wrong to evaluate the cost and benefit of a particular activity or course of action. Often it is quite essential that we do so. However I am disturbed when this becomes the sole or primary justification for an activity. This implies that if something will not be economically beneficial, it is not worth pursuing, as if life can be reduced simply to economics. There is nothing wrong with looking at the economic impact of bird-watching, nor with indicating that it brings economic benefit to our area. But would bird-watching be less worthwhile if it did not bring this benefit?

The producers of that news show felt that emphasizing the economic benefits of bird-watching would be the best angle for the story, although the program itself is not specifically focused on economics. This indicates that the economic angle was perceived to resonate with viewers. Were this an isolated incident I might not think much of it. But I see similar emphases in other situations. In my own organization there is a push for operating more efficiently, for generating more “bang” for the “bucks” our donors provide. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is good to use funds responsibly, especially as a non-profit organization. 

My concern remains though, that we cannot evaluate the value of an activity simply or solely in terms of its economic impact. Some activities are worthwhile regardless of their economics. Some are worthwhile even though they may have a negative economic impact. I think this problem lies partially at the root of debates about government spending. If we expect our government to operate exactly like a business, then we must evaluate whether any particular activity produces positive economic growth. But if we accept that some activities are worthwhile regardless of economic impact, then we allow the possibility that the government (or other organization or business) may engage in that activity even though it actually costs money in the end. One example that comes to my mind is public transportation. I believe that it is worthwhile for governments to support public transportation even if it is not self-sustaining or profit-generating. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this blog post, but I maintain that they exist. Other examples could be cited.

Economics are a factor in our lives. They are not the only factor. When we make them the deciding factor, we may miss out on activities or courses of action that bring other benefits. We need a more holistic assessment of the cost and benefit of any choice, something more than simply whether it will bring economic gain.

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